New Study: Breastfeeding Reduces Risk of Aggressive Cancer in Black Women

October 31, 2014  |  

We hear a lot about the benefits of breastfeeding to the baby. After all, breastfeeding has unparalleled preventive health benefits for infants including a reduced risk of ear infections, Type II diabetes, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and childhood obesity, among others. But new research continues to prove what health experts have been saying for years—breastfeeding is best for Moms too–especially Black mothers. A new study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute shows breastfeeding reduces risk of breast cancer in African American women—especially the more aggressive form that black women disproportionately get.

In general, studies have shown that African American women have a higher incidence of ER-negative and triple-negative breast cancer, a tumor subtype that appears at an earlier age and is more aggressive and lethal. Now, a large study bolsters the evidence that African American women who breastfeed have a lower risk of being diagnosed with estrogen receptor (ER)-negative and triple-negative breast cancers, which are more difficult to treat and have a higher mortality rate. The study was conducted by the African American Breast Cancer Epidemiology and Risk (AMBER) Consortium, a collaborative effort combining four of the country’s leading studies on African American women and breast cancer.

Researchers analyzed data from nearly 3,700 Black breast cancer patients. Women with children were one-third more likely to develop these estrogen receptor-negative breast tumors compared to those who never had children, according to a team led by Julie Palmer, professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center.

However, whether or not a mother breast-fed her infants seemed to influence her risk for the tumor, the study found. For example, the results indicated that women who had four or more children but had never breast-fed were 68 percent more likely to develop an estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer, compared to women who had only one child but did breast-feed. The risk of ER-negative breast cancer increased with each subsequent birth among those women who did not breastfeed.

“Promotion of lactation may be an effective tool for reducing occurrence of the subtypes that contribute disproportionately to breast cancer mortality,” concluded the authors. The finding may explain why African American women, who typically have more children but have lower rates of breastfeeding compared with American white women, are disproportionately affected by ER-negative breast cancer, the study authors wrote.

This new evidence is just further proof of the importance of eliminating the over 40 year old racial disparity in breastfeeding rates and increasing breastfeeding rates among black women. According to the latest CDC data, only 30 percent of black women were breastfeeding at six months duration compared to 46.6% of white women. And while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 12 months of exclusive breastfeeding, only 12 percent of Black women were still breastfeeding at this milestone versus 24 percent of white women.

Breast Cancer awareness should continue beyond this month, so let’s spread the word that breastfeeding can help protect and save Black women.

Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, author and a leading commentator on motherhood and infant health.  A former senior editor at Essence, Kimberly is the author of The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy (Amistad/HarperCollins) and two other Mocha Manual™ books and is the founder of MochaManual.com, (@MochaManual) an online parenting magazine and Black Breastfeeding 360°. Kimberly is a Food & Community Fellow with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @iamKSealsAllers.  

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